Slowly, the groundhog emerges from the scientific shadows.


Groundhog Day may be an ironic holiday, but it remains the only day in the United States dedicated to an animal: Groundhog monax, the largest and most widely distributed of the groundhog genus, is found eating flowering plants, or , at least this time of year, huddling underground, from Alabama to Alaska.

Yet despite their cultural prominence, marmots remain, so to speak, in the shadows. Relatively little is known about his social life. They are considered loners, which is not exactly wrong, but not entirely accurate either.

“These guys are much more social than we thought,” said Christine Maher, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Southern Maine and one of the few scientists to study groundhog behavior.

Maher came to Maine in 1998 with a keen interest in animal sociability. Marmots, a genus that encompasses 15 species of variable sociability, including alpine marmots that live in multi-generational family groups, semi-social yellow-bellied marmots, and apparently antisocial marmots, were a natural subject.

He found an ideal study site at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center, a 65-acre meadow and woodland sanctuary on the Falmouth coast. There, she has tagged no fewer than 513 groundhogs, tracing their fates and relationships in great detail.

The resulting family trees and territorial maps, along with records of their daily interactions and activities, are unique. “No one had looked at them over time as individuals,” Maher said.

The Gilsland marmots won’t emerge until late February, but one morning during the summer, Maher was setting peanut butter live traps around a burrow hidden in bushes next to the visitor center. The peanut butter soon proved irresistible.

A groundhog eats an apple at the 65-acre Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth, Maine, on Sept. 22, 2021. (Greta Rybus/The New York Times)

The trap afforded a rare close-up view of a marmot: elegantly stocky, with small, serious eyes, delicate whiskers, and fur ranging from auburn on its broad chest to a mix of chestnut, straw, and reddish on the rest of its body. . One round ear bore a tiny brass tag inscribed with the number 580.

“This is Torch,” said Maher, who names each of his study subjects. Torch was a new mother. Maher deftly transferred it into a thick bag to allow safe weighing. She also took a hair sample for later DNA analysis and measured how much Torch squirmed during various 30-second intervals, a simple personality test.

After returning Torch, irritated but unharmed, to his lair, Maher began a circuit of Gilsland. She checked several still-empty traps for Barnadette, who was raising her pups under an old barn. Near the barn was a sprawling community garden and the smorgasbord of its compost pile.

As anyone whose garden is visited by groundhogs can attest, the arrangement created some tension. Charles Kaufmann, one of the garden’s coordinators, acknowledged that there were conflicts with the gardeners but they were resolved peacefully. Among their peacekeeping tools are flexible fences that the groundhogs struggle to climb.

Dr. Christine Maher at the 65-acre Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth, Maine, on Sept. 22, 2021. (Greta Rybus/The New York Times)

“Audubon is for the preservation and appreciation of the natural world,” Kaufman said. “We feel compelled to live within that perspective and philosophy.” Also, “groundhog pups are the cutest things in the world.”

Along a freshly cut path that led from the gardens to a meadow, Maher spotted a marmot. Through her scope he identified Athos, a yearling and brother of Porthos and Aramis.

She named them after the Three Musketeers, which was a trick to help her remember them, but it was also appropriate. A few days before, she had observed them hanging out together in the burrow where they were born.

Such interactions belie the species’ solitary reputation, and conventional wisdom holds that juvenile marmots leave their home to seek out new territories only a few months after hatching. At Gilsland, Maher found that about half of the juveniles remain for a full year in the territory of their birth. When they finally leave, they often stick around.

One of many searches Dr. Christine Maher conducted in Falmouth, Maine, on Sept. 22, 2021. (Greta Rybus/The New York Times)

“It depends on whether they can come to terms with their mother,” Maher said. “Some moms are willing to do that. Others are not. Mothers can even bequeath territories to their daughters. Maher suspected that Athos’s mother had left Athos the family den.

As the groundhogs mature, their interactions become less friendly (the Three Musketeers most likely don’t spend much time together), but they aren’t completely antagonistic either. Maher also found that her groundhogs are friendlier to relatives than to non-relatives.

The result is a community of related marmots whose territories overlap. Some people venture further afield or come from afar, which helps keep the gene pool fresh, but a kinship-based structure remains. It could be understood that the Gilsland Farm marmots live in something of a loose-knit clan, its members keeping their distance but still interbreeding and maintaining relationships.

“You have all these networks of sisters living together, aunts, cousins, reaching out,” Maher said. “This had been hinted at, but I don’t think people knew the extent to which it was happening.”

Fence rolls, which groundhogs can defeat with their burrowing skills, at the 65-acre Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth, Maine, on Sept. 22, 2021. (Greta Rybus/The New York Times)

Daniel Blumstein, an evolutionary biologist at UCLA who is leading a long-term study of yellow-bellied marmots at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, said Maher’s data was “advancing our understanding of the benefits of having subtle social relationships.” “. He added: “She is allowing us to appreciate more the nuanced complexity of less direct social relationships.”

An open question is whether the patterns Maher sees at Gilsland Farm are common to other groundhog populations. Their behaviors may vary based on local circumstances, she said.

Gilsland Farm marmots live on what amounts to an island of habitat; to the west is an impassable estuary, to the east is a dangerous road. North and South are suburban neighborhoods rich in potential habitat but full of unwelcoming homeowners. “They are seen as vermin,” Maher said of the marmots. “People don’t seem to think much of them.”

When young groundhogs leave Gilsland Farm, they tend to end up being run over or shot. Therefore, there are advantages to staying at home, as long as there is enough food. There are also mutual benefits to sharing: for example, an alarm whistle from an approaching fox would be heard by everyone nearby.

A fenced-in garden, which groundhogs can defeat with their burrowing skills, at the 65-acre Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth, Maine, on Sept. 22, 2021. (Greta Rybus/The New York Times)

From a bird’s-eye view of evolution, the genes of somewhat social marmots spread more easily than more solitary ones, and Maher thinks it actually represents a return to something like an ancestral state. Before European colonization, marmots would have lived in clearings, created by fires, storms, beaver activity, and indigenous practices, separated by inhospitable forests.

“They were forced to live together more, so they were more tolerant of each other and more social,” he said. “When the Europeans cut down all of that forest, they actually increased the amount of habitat available for marmots. Maybe they became less social because they could spread out.”

However, neighborhoods don’t have to be dangerous. Maher hopes that a deeper appreciation of groundhogs’ sociability can help people be more understanding of them and even graciously share the suburban landscape with them, as the gardeners at Gilsland Farm do.

His work also intersects with some non-scientific endeavors, such as the social media presence of Chunk the Groundhog, followed by more than 500,000 people on Instagram, and the amateur naturalists whose 15 years of backyard observations produced uniquely intimate accounts of Woodchuck Wonderland.

An abandoned groundhog den at the 65-acre Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth, Maine, on Sept. 22, 2021. (Greta Rybus/The New York Times)

“People generally don’t have that idea of ​​the way they live,” said John Griffin, director of Urban Wildlife Programs for the Humane Society of the United States. In his own work, Griffin often finds groundhogs to be intruders. He thinks the unfamiliarity, despite their ubiquity, marmots often glimpsed only along road shoulders or running for cover, leads to intolerance or an exaggerated sense of risk.

Appreciating that animals have social lives can change how they are perceived, Griffin said. “I don’t know how to quantify it, but I think it’s valuable,” he said. “Conflict resolution is all about perspective.”

Tolerance would benefit more than groundhogs. Their burrowing helps aerate and enrich the soil, Maher said, and many other creatures use their burrows. Groundhog burrows can even create local biodiversity hotspots.

Athos, at least, would be spared the suburban gauntlet. “The fact that he’s not gone yet makes me think he’s going to stay,” Maher said.

Athos moved slowly down the path, eating the clovers and dandelions that would sustain her through the coming winter. He would occasionally stand on two legs and look around her. Maher logged her activities on a handheld computer.

When an approaching pedestrian sent Athos running into tall grass, Maher explained how the system worked. “I just enter two-letter codes for their behavior,” she said. “Feed. Walk. Alert. Run. Groom. Dig, once in a while. They don’t have a huge repertoire.”

She sounded a bit self-conscious about this. Passersby, she admitted, are sometimes amused that she spends so much time looking at seemingly boring creatures.

With a whisper, Athos returned to the path. “Oh, there she is!” Maher said, the enthusiasm in her voice suggesting that, after all these years, she still finds groundhogs quite interesting.


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